A study from the UK’s University of Oxford, published in November 2018, proposed a tax on processed and red meat. The researchers reported that taxing these products could prevent more than 220,000 deaths per year and save some $40 billion per year in health care costs worldwide. It found that to achieve these goals, red meat would have to be 20 percent more expensive and processed meat such as bacon and sausages would have to cost double today’s prices in order to generate enough tax money to pay for most of the health care costs related to consuming these foods.
We have good evidence that eating processed and red meat at current levels is unhealthy. The World Health Organization classifies processed beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic and unprocessed meat as probably carcinogenic. These foods also have been linked to increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
An unrelated study published in October 2018 concluded that regularly consuming processed meats is linked to a 9 percent increased risk of breast cancer. The Oxford research projected that at current levels of consumption, in 2020, 2.4 million deaths would be attributable to eating red and processed meat and that related healthcare costs would reach $285 billion.
The investigators suggested that like taxes on alcohol, tobacco and sugar, a tax on red and processed meat could encourage consumers to make healthier choices. Their findings suggest that if these were introduced, consumption of processed meat would drop by about two portions per week in high income countries and by 16 percent worldwide, while unprocessed red meat consumption would remain steady, due to consumers substituting it for processed meat.
At present, consumption of red and processed meat exceeds recommended levels in most high and middle-income countries. “This is having significant impacts not only on personal health, but also on healthcare systems, which are taxpayer-funded in many countries, and on the economy, which is losing its labor force due to ill health and care for family members who fall ill,” said study leader, Dr. Marco Springmann.
In addition to the health benefits, the researchers observed that cutting back on meat consumption would have positive effects on climate change by reducing global greenhouse emissions by more than 100 million tons. It also would reduce levels of obesity.
The taxes to achieve all this would have to be pretty high. The researchers concluded that the UK should introduce a 79 percent tax on processed meat and a 14 percent tax on unprocessed meat. The estimates for the U.S. were even steeper – 163 percent and 34 percent respectively, which Dr. Springmann said would be attributable to the costs of “an inefficient health system that wastes a lot of money.”
I generally advise people to eat less meat. For the record, a 2015 review of more than 800 scientific studies suggested that every 50 gram (about 1.76 ounces) portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent, while for every 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of red meat consumed daily, the risk of this cancer could increase by 17 percent. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet on the introduction of meat taxes in the U.S. any time soon, if ever. The World Cancer Research Fund International suggests limiting red meat consumption to 18 ounces a week and processed meat consumption to “very little.” My view is the less meat you eat, the better.
Andrew Weil, M.D
Marco Springmann et al, “Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts.” PLOS, November 6, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204139